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AMD targets NCs with chip

Advanced Micro Devices and IGS Technologies will offer building blocks for Intel-compatible, low-cost Internet access devices, network computers, and digital set-top boxes.

Advanced Micro Devices will work with IGS Technologies to offer building blocks for Intel-compatible, low-cost Internet access devices, network computers, and digital set-top boxes--a market that arch-rival Intel has yet to enter.

AMD will offer its Elan SC410 microcontroller in conjunction with technology from IGS that can output information to a monitor or television screen and also connect to a video phone for conferencing applications.

A microcontroller is a low-cost processor, typically integrating a number of computer chip functions and designed to consume small amounts of power. AMD's microcontroller integrates features such as serial port, parallel port, a dual PC card controller, support for infrared data communications, and a keyboard controller onto a single piece of silicon to keep the price of the chip low. Serial and parallel port connections support devices such as mice and printers respectively. The PC Card controller allows the use of credit-card-sized modems and network cards.

The market for network computers and Internet access devices such as the WebTV from Philips and Sony is an immature one, but AMD is looking to sell its Intel-compatible processors into as many places it can.

Initially, digital set-top boxes may be the most attractive market for AMD's reference design. Analysts say some 65 million older cable boxes are eligible for upgrades to newer technology, which would allow cable companies to add computerlike features such as Internet access and an enhanced user interface for easier operation.

"We just see this as a good opportunity. All of the market segments are very nascent right now, but we want to be in a position to take advantage of whichever one takes off," said an AMD spokesperson.

Market research firm Dataquest says shipments of 16-, 32-, and 64-bit microprocessors and microcontrollers into consumer electronics devices will grow by almost 50 percent in 1997. Of some 51.6 million units shipped last year, though, a large portion were in game consoles and not network computers or Internet access devices.

Intel, which has been slow to move into high-volume, low-margin chip markets, is currently working on moving Windows CE to a low-power processor sometime in the second half of 1997. Some of the larger players already in the market include Silicon Graphics, whose MIPS processors are used in game consoles, Hitachi, and Motorola.

"I don't think that [the embedded market] is the thrust of Intel's vision. Their thrust is in high-profit processors," says Brian Matas, senior analyst with Integrated Circuit Engineering Corporation, a semiconductor research firm. Intel's dominance in the processor market has limited the acceptance of AMD's top-of-the-line K6 processor, forcing it to move into smaller markets where its x86 technology can be used.

"I don't know what microprocessor business AMD has to offer next year. It seems like they are throwing processors into the wind and seeing if they can strike it rich," Matas says.